The family of a British Muslim arrested for spying in Yemen has criticised international diplomatic efforts to secure his freedom after it emerged that a senior Houthi official ordered his release from prison a year ago.
Luke Symons, 27, who was in the country to study Islam and teach, has been held for nearly three years in a political prison in Sanaa despite investigators finding no evidence to suggest he was a British spy, according to documents obtained by his family.
Mr Symons was arrested at a security checkpoint in the capital in April 2017 after several failed attempts to leave the country with his Yemeni wife and their young son to escape the war. He was only detained because he was carrying a British passport when he was stopped, his family says.
His grandfather, Robert Cummings, who is critical of British government efforts, said he wanted officials to ask a simple question of the Houthi regime. “They have got his release note, why hasn’t he been released? Can you tell us why? That’s it.”
The family has obtained what it says is a copy of a release order from December 2018, signed by Sultan Al Samei, a member of the Houthi's top decision-making body. "Kindly order the release of the British prisoner Luke Anthony Symons (Jamal the British), who served two years in jail, as there's no evidence at all against him," the document said. The official did not answer his phone when contacted by The National.
The fractured hierarchies in Yemen mean that authorities in charge of the jail also have to approve his release.
“They are the law and they seem to do whatever they please,” said Daoud Ali Salaman, the chairman of the South Wales Islamic Centre, who has been helping the family. “These are criminals and they’re looking to see what they can get out of it. They’re accountable to nobody.”
Mr Symons’ UK-based family said he has been subjected to brutal treatment inside prison, including being badly beaten up during the first six months behind bars. Rights groups have reported that some Houthi officials were exploiting their powers to “turn a profit through detention, torture and murder”.
Former detainees told Human Rights Watch for a 2018 report that officers beat them with iron rods, shackled them to the walls and threatened to rape them or their family members.
The family said Mr Symons’ circumstances improved after intervention by local contacts of the large Yemeni community in the detained man’s home town of Cardiff, Wales.
Mr Cummings was told that his grandson’s presence in the country “represented a danger to everyone, first of all himself, as well as to the security and stability of the country” in a WhatsApp conversation with a Yemeni official who contacted him claiming to be scrutinising his son’s file.
“The legal procedures are going on and God willing he will come out in the coming days and will be deported to his country through the International Red Cross accompanied by his wife and son,” the unidentified official said in his last message in November 2018.
Mr Cummings said the last conversation with his grandson was in August, when his mental health had significantly worsened. He had previously refused food for 10 days.
Mr Symons left Cardiff to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2012 to increase his knowledge of Islam before travelling to Yemen. He met his wife in 2014 but her personal documents were destroyed when their home was bombed in Taez, south-west Yemen, during the conflict.
Mr Symons’ efforts to secure travel documents from British authorities for his wife during trips to Djibouti and Ethiopia ended in failure, and they returned to Yemen. He was arrested after travelling by motorcycle with a friend from their mountain refuge outside Taez to Sanaa, according to Mr Cummings.
Kevin Brennan, a Cardiff MP for the opposition Labour party who has raised the plight of Mr Symons in parliament, said that it appeared that UK’s increasingly tough stance on immigration had stymied Mr Symons’ efforts to take his family out of Yemen.
He said that government departments need to work “in a much better and coordinated way to ensure safe passage … for British citizens caught up in extraordinary circumstances”.
He added: “It’s striking that sometimes the family appear to know more of what’s going on than the Foreign Office.”
The UK government said efforts to free Mr Symons have been hampered by the lack of diplomatic influence after more than four years of war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis. The former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, raised his case with the Yemeni authorities during a visit to the Gulf in March.
The UK's Foreign Office has been contacted for comment.